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SmartGeometry 2013: Uncertainty Brings Out the Best in Generative Design

SmartGeometry Conference (SG), the annual gathering organized by SmartGeometry Group, is now in its 12th year, with a solid history to prove its international appeal. But even long-time SG alumni are often at a loss for words when pressed to describe the event.

“What is SmartGeometry? I don’t actually have a straight answer to that. It’s a question that we ask ourselves many times,” said Xavier de Kestelier, one of the SG directors, during his opening speech this year (SG2013, The Bartlett: UCL, London, April 15-20). It’s not a scholarly event where professors get up and read papers, hiding behind tall lecterns and impenetrable academic terms. It’s not an industry event where people trade war stories and network over free-flowing wine and beer. “SG is one of the events where we get practice and academia to come to the same event and interact,” said Kestelier. “I never talk about SG conference; I always talk about SG workshop/conference, because that workshop is very important, probably the most important thing.” Continue reading

SmartGeometry 2012: Radical Collaboration, Conversation, and Computation

Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t find a cell biologist and a textile specialist talking about how they might work together. Nor would you find a keynote speech on crystallography (the art of atom placement and manipulation) immediately followed by another on building skins. But this was SmartGeometry, an annual conference known for bringing together academics, practitioners, and technology providers from radically different disciplines. Continue reading

Bentley Be Inspired 2011: i-models get the iPad treatment; point-cloud gets the spotlight

This week, heavyweights in the infrastructure market are gathering in Amsterdam, the Dutch homeland famous for tulips, windmills, and wooden clogs. They’ve flown in for Bentley Systems’ Be Inspired 2011 conference, an annual event that culminates in a gala dinner and an award ceremony. Bentley launched the by-invitation only event to recognize projects that represent “outstanding achievement and innovation in infrastructure design, construction, and operations.”

But in the pre-show talks, held yesterday with 70 members of the media who had flown in for the event, Bentley paid homage to an outstanding achievement by Apple: the iPad. The lightweight multi-touch tablet fathered by the late Steve Jobs, as it turned out, is about to become much more prevalent in the greasy fieldwork of plant managers, wastewater facility supervisors, roadway designers, and structural engineers. Continue reading

SmartGeometry 2011: Clearings in the Data Jungle

On April 1st, onstage conversation at the IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark, spilled into Twittersphere. The panelists were wrestling with the pitfalls of data abundance. They pondered: How raw is data? When does data become information or knowledge? How is data collected, communicated, or visualized? Who authors data? Is the collection of data a creative design process in itself? Does data lie? Is data always biased, skewed, and sampled? How do we generate data from what we sense?

Feeling the urge to chime in, those in the live audience and web audience commented:

  • Should architects be educated in the use of data?
  • What bothers me as an engineer is that some structural engineers seem to think that “optimal” means minimal material (weight) for a simple stress criterion: but is the perfect structure a perfect building? Of course not!
  • You seem to instigate that it is either data or logic. I would rather argue that data, logic, and visualization go hand-in-hand.

These Talkshop sessions are part of the SmartGeometry 2011 (SG) conference, an annual gathering sponsored by Bentley Systems and Z Corp., among others. The event, which takes place in a different city each year, tends to draw top talents from global design, engineering, and architecture firms, along with researchers and academics.

This year, participants were asked to wrestle with the role of data and information; the role of calculation; the role of feedback; and the role of the physical. Split into small groups (called clusters), they were urged to come up with creative ways to shape their digital design with real-world data.

Data Paradox
The ubiquitous smartphones and tablets — iPhones, iPads, and Android tablets, to name but a few — have essentially turned most of us into data consumers as well as data producers: We may check weather data, obtain flight info, and gobble up restaurant reviews on Yelp; at the same time, we may also upload temperature readings, report flight delays, and submit restaurant reviews. This emerging trend makes each of us a living, breathing sensor, allowing creative thinkers like Usman Haque, CEO of Connected Environments and founder of Pachube, to explore the intersection of technology, telecommunications, and architecture.

One of Haque’s projects, commissioned by the city of Santa Monica, California, was a night-long laser show, dubbed Primal Source. The light show, projected on to a mist screen, produced dynamically changing shapes and colors throughout the night, brought on by the voices of the participants themselves (estimated to be 200,000).

“Responding to sounds emanating from the crowd, the system’s modes changed every few minutes depending on how active the crowd participation was (more quickly when there was more noise),” explained Connected Environments at its web site. “Each mode responded in a slightly different way to the individual voices and sounds picked up by 8 microphones distributed towards the front.”

To some, projects like Primal Source may be no more than an experiment. To others, it’s the dawning of a new design philosophy, better suited for the generation that likes to have a say in how their living spaces are shaped.

Easy access to public data (such as climate data and city data) and private data (volunteered by willing individuals via Twitter, Facebook, Pachube, and other venues) also creates significant anxiety, as expressed by online comments:

  • Is it necessary to use only data to inform the design? Or could we be smarter by informing design with data through the smart filters (great remark about the fact that we need more filters) of logic and reasoning?
  • Some data is difficult to measure or there may be no method to extract information. Sound scattering is difficult to understand and even more difficult to design for …
  • Playing the devil’s advocate: Are we taking a step back from logic to data?

GUI-Driven Computational Design
Now in its 10th year, the SmartGeometry Group is known for championing computational design, mixing parametric CAD modeling and programming scripts to explore forms and concepts. Bentley Systems’ GenerativeComponents, a free software package downloadable from the company’s site, is among the leading software packages that facilitate conference participants’ digital designs.

GenerativeComponents, explained Bentley Systems, “captures and exploits the critical relationships between design intent and geometry. Designs can be refined by either dynamically modeling and directly manipulating geometry, by applying rules and capturing relationships among building elements, or by defining complex building forms and systems through concisely expressed algorithms.”

The sophistication of GenerativeComponents, especially its use of scripting languages, may prove a daunting challenge for the uninitiated. These users often turn to a more graphical software, like Rhino plug-in Grasshopper, to execute their generative design concepts. However, upcoming releases of GenerativeComponents may rely more drag-and-drop GUI, less on scripting. Highlighting the new features in development, Bentley Systems officials listed the following:

  • Freedom to choose between methods (direct, hands-on modeling; expressions, inline conditional, and functional; object-oriented scripting environment; programing using C# and VB.Net)
  • Quickly prototype a design graphically
  • Refine it without manual remodel for each scenario
  • Add scripting for more control

Though leading architecture and construction firms have embraced GenerativeComponents, other disciplines like industrial design and manufacturing have yet to discover the software. A GUI-driven approach, along with Bentley’s decision to offer the software for free last year, may expose the power of the software to new markets.

More Data, for Better of Worse
As sustainable design becomes the battle cry of many professions, parametric CAD software users from all fields will face new challenges presented by massive amount of data. There’s no shortage of material data, climate data, performance data, and structural-thermal data. But where did the data come from? How was it collected? Was the manner in which it was collected appropriate for how you intend to use it? How frequently is the data refreshed? (To quote Sarah Krasley, Autodesk product manager for sustainability, “Data is like milk. It’ll go bad if nobody restock.”)

In the era of information overload, data is both a blessing and a curse.

Be Inspired 2010: Computation, Coordination, and Visualization Are Connerstones of Intelligent Infrastructure

Amsterdam, the city of tulips and windmills, has an easygoing rhythm that could vex an anxious American traveler. Upon my arrival, I quickly learned to slow down, whether I wanted to or not. I had just discovered my U.S. laptop’s plug wouldn’t fit in a standard European outlet. I had but two hours of battery life left. So I could just run out and buy a converter, right? Not so fast, said the hotel concierge. It was Sunday. Most stores were closed. They would remain closed till midday Monday. He suggested I took a stroll along the canal two blocks away.

I’m among the 60 reporters Bentley Systems has invited to this year’s Be Inspired conference, where Bentley customers presented some of the best uses of the company’s technologies in infrastructure modeling. Featured projects have been selected as finalists for the annual Be Inspired awards and for inclusion in the company’s The Year in Infrastructure publication.

The infrastructure market, much like the canals of Amsterdam, requires methodical planning and flows at a slower pace. Bridges, buildings, and freeways cannot be pressed into service overnight. Sales cycles are longer. Projects take years. In 2009, the market dipped 7.1% from 2008, according to Daratech (2009 Architecture, Construction, Engineering, and Operations Software and Services Estimated Sales).

Club 500
Have you ever wondered who the biggest stakeholders in infrastructure are? Bentley knows the answer. For the past 18 months, the company’s business intelligence division has been pouring over financial statements and earning reports to figure out 500 of the world’s top infrastructure asset owners (measured by reported net tangible fixed assets, according to Bentley).

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to find U.S. Government at the top of Bentley’s list, published for the first time this month. Uncle Sam’s infrastructure holdings are estimated at $282,700 millions. It was closely followed by Electricite De France SA – EDF (France) at $184,466 millions and by Joint Stock Company Gazprom (Russia) at $161,813 millions. Petrochina Company Ltd. (China) comes in at 4th at $155,973 millions.

The top owners as measured by Bentley show a diverse group, spanning from the U.S., Japan, China, France, and Russia to Sweden, Taiwan, and Mexico. Perhaps it might also surprise (or unsettle) you to know that the majority of the big owners are in the private sector, not public or government. Bentley plans to publish the list annually, much like the prestigious Fortune 500 list. For details, consult Bentley’s list here.

Many on this list, of course, are customers of Bentley and its main rival Autodesk. By Bentley’s own admission, Autodesk leads Bentley by a small margin. “We would like to overtake Autodesk,” said Greg Bentley in his keynote address. “We sure would like your help with that.” So what help does he need from those in the audience? “Autodesk asks you to use Revit [for BIM], Inventor [for mechanical modeling], their civil products, then leave you to stitch them together in NavisWorks. We’d like you to consider, in your future projects, the advantage that comes with Bentley’s single-platform approach,” he said.

This approach is the core of Bentley’s AssetWise initiative, launched in February 2010. It centers around Bentley’s comprehensive V8i portfolio. The whopping 148-title series encompasses the company’s flagship design package MicroStation; collaboration platform ProjectWise; plant management packages; storm water, waste water, and water management packages; roadway design software; geospatial software; and others.

Computational Design
If bricks and motors are the literal cornerstones of physical infrastructure, computational design, project coordination, and real-time visualization may be their digital counterparts in what Bentley describes as intelligent infrastructure.

Henning Larsen Architects, a Danish firm, is currently involved in two projects, both selected as finalists for Be Inspired awards. Nicknamed Crystal Towers, a 18-story-tall highrise and its 26-story-tall cousin, linked with a skyway, are under construction in downtown Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Another, dubbed Villas in the Sky, is a proposed 34-story tower in King Abdullah financial district, also in Riyadh. They’re scheduled to be completed by 2013, just a little more than 2 years from now. In the latter, Henning Larsen used Bentley’s Generative Components software to explore and identify the best form and structure.

Morphosis Architects’ 41 Cooper Square project in New York, winner of the AIA California Council award and also a contender for Be Inspired, exemplified the tight negotiations between an owner’s limited budget, the architects’ vision, and the construction engineers’ pragmatic concerns. The semi-transparent atrium’s space envelope was dictated by the dimensions of the nearby floors and modifications done for code compliance. The structural nodes for the atrium were automatically generated using Bentley’s Generative Components software and computation scripts.

Computational design, also called script-driven design, is often used to automatically generate patterned surfaces, roof curvatures governed by a set of rules, or variations of the same basic shape. Because it harnesses the CPU’s ability to process and solve algorithms, computational design tends to be a more efficient method than manual modeling in these cases. It currently enjoys a robust following among architectural pioneers, but technologies like Bentley’s Generative Components are not limited to the architecture practice. It’s quite possible that the same approach may be used by automotive or consumer goods designers for similar purposes.

Coordination
Other Be Inspired finalists like McCauley Daye O’Connell and Zaha Hadid Architects rely on Bentley software’s collaboration functions to work with subcontractors, structural engineers, environmental analysts, and other team members working in different time zones and continents, using different CAD packages and data warehousing systems. As integrated project delivery or IPD (which encourages early contributions of knowledge and expertise from all disciplines involved in a project) gains popularity, so is the use of collaboration platforms like Bentley’s ProjectWise. A key aspect of ProjectWise transactions may be Bentley’s i-model, a format for exchanging infrastructure design geometry, business data, and change history.

Visualization
Bentley’s MicroStation is powered by Luxology rendering engine, the same one licensed by Dassault Systemes for its midrange mechanical modeler SolidWorks. Bentley’s rival Autodesk uses mental images’ mental ray rendering engine to power its architecture modeler Revit. Real-time rendering and animation have become a necessity in building and infrastructure as many firms use photo-realistic scenes and animations to explain their concepts to potential clients, sometimes also to address local authorities’ concerns over shadow casting, anticipated pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and neighborhood impact.

According to Jerry Flynn, Bentley’s project manager for visualization, Microstation users can also use i-models to produce renderings. (They won’t, however, be able to edit materials.) In upcoming V8i Select Series 3, users can also generate stereoscopic images and animations. Bentley, like Autodesk, is counting on the rise of 3D cities, mathematically accurate digital replicas of renowned cities. The trend has already begun, with cities like Quebec, Copenhagen, and Helsinki paving the way.

In the paper “3D City GIS – A Major Step Towards Sustainable Infrastructure,” Bentley product manager Benoit Fredericque writes, “Local governments are challenged by growing city populations, leading to increasing demands on local infrastructure. As existing infrastructure deteriorates in these dense urban areas, new infrastructure must be built, even though most areas of the world currently face decreasing financial and environmental resources.” This, he reasoned, might prompt a demand for “the use of 3D city geospatial information systems” to ” assist in sustaining infrastructure at the local level.”

In the case of 3D Copenhagen, Denmark authorities used Bentley’s MicroStation to capture and model the geometry of the city, comprising more than 130,000 buildings. Bentley’s proposed solution to those who are interested in developing 3D cities would be to integrate Bentley Maps, Bentley Geospatial Server, Bentley Descartes, and Bentley GeoWeb Publisher.

Be Inspired Awards
On Wednesday October 20, Bentley announced the winners of its Be Inspired awards at a gala dinner. Visit this page to view the list of winners.

With new-found appreciation for the canal infrastructure of Amsterdam, I marvel at the city one last time before I bid farewell.

Disclosure: Bentley provided airfare and lodging for my attendance.